The Powers of Exercise

The American Heart Association pinpoints a lack of exercise as one of the major factors contributing to hypertension and other cardiovascular problems. Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, serves many functions, including keeping the blood vessels elastic, removing excess salt from the body, and helping with weight loss.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, involves a greater than normal pressure of blood coursing through the arteries. This high pressure forces the heart to work harder than normal and increases the risk of an aneurysm (rupture of an artery), heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, and other disorders.

Several alternative approaches emphasize the need to eliminate some of the triggers or causes of high blood pressure. The goal is for people with hypertension to cut down or eliminate their use of antihypertensive drugs.

Nutritional Therapy for High Blood Pressure

According to nutritional therapy, diet can make all the difference between high blood pressure and healthy blood pressure. Population surveys have shown that certain groups of people in some parts of the world have a high rate of hypertension, while others have a low rate. This difference is usually attributed to their food choices.

In general, the ideal diet to prevent or reduce blood pressure should emphasize fresh vegetables and fruits and whole grains and limit animal products, including milk and cheese. Fats and sugars should be avoided as much as possible. This sounds close to a vegetarian diet for good reason: Surveys of vegetarians, who eat no meat, poultry, or fish, show that they consistently have lower rates of hypertension than nonvegetarians.

The following are specific dietary guidelines:

  • Significantly reduce sodium (salt) in the diet.
  • Eat more foods rich in potassium, such as bananas, prunes, and tomatoes.
  • Increase intake of calcium and magnesium, but make sure the sources are low in fat and salt.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake.

People who are overweight are also at higher risk for high blood pressure. Maintaining ideal body weight is an important part of the treatment, and adhering to the above dietary guidelines should make this possible.

Several supplements are also commonly prescribed, including:

  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E (although high doses may have the opposite effect)
  • B complex vitamins
  • potassium
  • calcium
  • magnesium
  • zinc
  • coenzyme Q10 (ubiquitone)
  • fish oils (containing omega-3 fatty acids)

Here are some tips to reduce sodium in your diet:

  • Never use table salt.
  • Try to replace as many processed foods with fresh foods as you can.
  • Avoid hidden salt that can be found in processed foods (even sweet-tasting desserts).
  • Go easy on the salad dressing.

Mind/Body Medicine for High Blood Pressure

For people whose hypertension is triggered or exacerbated by emotional stress and tension, mind/body medicine can be an effective treatment. Research has shown that several mind/body therapies have the power to decrease high blood pressure, sometimes by as much as 10 mm Hg.

Biofeedback training, which instructs people to alter certain involuntary functions of the body, is particularly recommended for people with hypertension. It involves using sensors to hook a patient up to a biofeedback monitor, which reveals the levels of heart rate, muscle tension, body temperature, or other functions. Using this information, the patient is taught to change one or more of these levels. Relaxation techniques and guided imagery exercises are usually part of the instruction.

One of two training types are typically used to treat hypertension: electromyograph biofeedback, which measures muscle tension (on the forehead, for example), and thermal biofeedback, which measures body temperature. A study at the Medical College of Ohio showed that patients who used diuretics and biofeedback were five times more likely to lower their high blood pressure than patients who only used drugs.

Other helpful mind/body therapies include:

  • Spirituality -- Researchers have discovered links to fostering a religious commitment and reduced hypertension.
  • Meditation -- Researchers have also shown daily meditation to lower hypertension.
  • Hypnotherapy -- Hypnotic trances can relieve tension.
  • Yoga -- Poses and breathing exercises are effective stress busters.

Here's a sample relaxation breathing exercise that might be helpful in relieving stress:

  • Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Wear loose, nonrestrictive clothing.
  • Close your eyes. Begin breathing slowly and deeply.
  • When exhaling, imagine tension effortlessly flowing out of your body.
  • As you inhale, picture yourself filling your body with fresh air and energy.
  • Continue the slow, deep breathing for as long as you are comfortable.
  • When you are ready, slowly return to your normal rate and rhythm of breathing.

Herbal Medicine for High Blood Pressure

Herbs hold a great deal of promise in preventing and treating high blood pressure and other heart conditions, and they have few or no side effects. Herbs have the ability to dilate vessels to increase circulation, regulate the heart rate, and encourage urination (to remove water), among other functions.

Commonly used herbs include:

  • cayenne to stimulate the flow of blood and reduce blood cholesterol levels
  • garlic to widen blood vessels, lower blood cholesterol levels, and decrease blood clotting
  • ginkgo to increase blood flow and dilate blood vessels
  • hawthorn berries also to expand blood vessels

Other High Blood Pressure Therapies

  • Acupuncture for High Blood Pressure -- A series of treatments, often on the heart meridian, can lower blood pressure, with the results lasting for months or years.
  • Bodywork for High Blood Pressure -- Massage is effective in relieving stress and tension.
  • Detoxification, Fasting, and Colon Therapy for High Blood Pressure -- Short, supervised fasts or juice diets and daily sauna treatments may be effective.
  • Homeopathy for High Blood Pressure -- Specific remedies must be tailored to the individual.
  • Osteopathy for High Blood Pressure -- Manipulations and other treatments can relieve muscle tension and improve posture and breathing.
  • Qigong for High Blood Pressure -- This traditional Chinese technique also enhances breathing and posture; it also improves blood circulation and clears the mind.

For more information on high blood pressure and alternative medicine, see: